Elvis Presley was not a racist

I’ve been an Elvis fan since I was a small child. I can recognise pretty much any Elvis recording within half a bar. I have loved his music longer than I’ve loved anyone else’s. When I’m down the only remedy is “Viva Las Vegas” (or any number of his gazillion other recordings). Today is the thirtieth anniversary of his death. I cried then even though I was only little and I’m a little weepy about it today.

I am not one of those fans who has any illusions about the man. Yes, when he died he was a grotesquely overweight junkie. Yes, there are many other performers who were more talented and innovative than he. Yes, Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” is WAY better than Elvis’s. Yes, he’s example no. 1 of how corrupting fame is. But I do think he was more interesting and complicated than he is popularly portrayed. And I love his voice. I hear it and I melt. If he’d been born into an affluent family he would’ve wound up a famous tenor.

In the New York Times this week Peter Guralnick argues that Elvis Presley was not a racist:

Just how committed [Elvis] was to a view that insisted not just on musical accomplishment but fundamental humanity can be deduced from his reaction to the earliest appearance of an ugly rumor that has persisted in one form or another to this day. Elvis Presley, it was said increasingly within the African-American community, had declared, either at a personal appearance in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person” television program, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”

That he had never appeared in Boston or on Murrow’s program did nothing to abate the rumor, and so in June 1957, long after he had stopped talking to the mainstream press, he addressed the issue—and an audience that scarcely figured in his sales demographic—in an interview for the black weekly Jet.

After citing lots of evidence of Elvis’ not being the racist redneck he’s often portrayed as Guralnick moves on to talk about why Presley is often seen that way:

As Chuck D perceptively observes, what does it mean, within this context [of social inequalty], for Elvis to be hailed as “king,” if Elvis’s enthronement obscures the striving, the aspirations and achievements of so many others who provided him with inspiration?

Elvis would have been the first to agree. When a reporter referred to him as the “king of rock ‘n’ roll” at the press conference following his 1969 Las Vegas opening, he rejected the title, as he always did, calling attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, “one of my influences from way back.”

But Guralnick doesn’t talk about other reasons Elvis is seen this way. Like the oodles and oodles of paraphernalia that associates Elvis with the confederate flag. And also because, rightly or wrongly, white southerners are frequently viewed by the rest of the US as racists. Elvis was a white southerner therefore . . . Elvis appropriated black music therefore . . .

I have friends who hate Elvis because he was loved by the good ole boy racist sexist dropkicks they went to school with in the South. Elvis is forever tainted by that good ole boy worship.

Everything I’ve read about Elvis convinces me that for his time and place he was less racist than many of his peers. He understood the origins of the music he played which is more than I can say for many white boy rock ‘n’ rollers over the years. Does that mean he wasn’t racist at all? Unlikely given the systemic racial inequality that prevails in this and every other country and infects all our brains. Does it mean he was a nice guy? Who knows? He certainly wasn’t in his later drug-addicted days. Junkies are hard work. And rich junkies who are worshipped by millions of people world wide? Ugh.

I think it matters whether or not he was overtly racist. People who hold him up as a symbol of the white South and a believer in white supremacy should know he wasn’t a white supremacist.

It’s very hard to separate the symbol from the person. Especially when the person was as big a mess as Elvis was.

Excuse me, I’m going to go have a little cry and play “Long Black Limousine” now.


  1. Dawn on #

    One of my co-workers is Elvis’ like, 2nd or 3rd cousin. Her mother’s maiden name was Presley. Isn’t that so cool?!

  2. Heather Harper on #

    Racists are ignorant in general.

    I’m sure you already know, but Lisa’s duet with her father is being released Friday on iTunes. You can also view it on http://www.spinner.com on Fri. The proceeds will be used to build temporary housing in New Orleans for Katrina victims. Sounds like something the daughter of a racist would do, huh? 😉

    little sidenote…
    my husband used to be an Elvis impersonator.

  3. veejane on #

    Someday when you are in my neck of the woods again I will kidnap you and require you to stand in my kitchen. It is an Elvis kitchen, decorated entirely (except for curtains) is cheesy Elvis paraphernalia.

    (It is all gifts! I have never bought an Elvis item in my life! And yet, I own both a copy of his driver’s license and a dollar bill with his face on it.)

    I think a lot of people lay their own cultural ankle-weights onto famous people, and onto the past. I don’t know much about the man himself except that he liked fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. And that — contrary to the popular imagination, see what I mean? — his hair wasn’t naturally black. Everybody just thinks that because he dyed his hair by the time color TV came along; in black and white photos from his early 20s you can see he had ordinary light brown hair.

  4. alisa on #

    living in the south (just outside memphis, where the elvis-love is unbelievable) for four years, i learned a lot about what i call “invisible racism.”

    it’s insidious because everyone denies they have it, but there is an unspoken awareness of race in any inter-racial interaction.

    i didn’t even realize it until i visited back home and interacted with people without that underlying tension.

    it’s really heartbreaking that in this day and age those ways of thinking still exist. the older (70+) generation is the worst, and yet many say they aren’t prejudiced. but they are.

    i think a time goes on, the younger generations find there is less and less a place in the world at large for their feelings. but, in those small pockets of the world, i wonder if those tensions will ever dissolve.

  5. Corey on #

    The only time I spent in the South (which, strangely is more ‘North’ and ‘East’ for me) was an August in Fredericksberg, Virginia. You’d swear they were still knee-deep-dug in defending against Union aggression with the number of stars-n-bars banners waving. One afternoon I was at the big mall in Woodbridge and in their food court alone I personally overheard a half-dozen racial epithets. Now I know it’s wrong to stereotype southerners as being racist, but it sure seemed a little too comfortably close to commonplace that day…

  6. hwalk on #

    i guess i’m too young because i really don’t know anything about elvis.

  7. Elmo on #

    um (i am from the y generation) but i’d never heard he was racist, and from the evidence (that you) just presented to me it doesn’t seem likely that he was any more racist than most of the people in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s—I mean, come on, the white Australai policy was only lifted in, what, 1973 or something..?
    but I don’t think it matters either, because, when it comes down to it, he was an artist that captured the whole world’s attention and gained the whole world’s admiration and still makes millions of people (black, white, yellow, brown—whatever) happy when they hear his music and that is the whole point of music and it’s a pretty amazing thing to have done with your life. (even if he did die obese and a drug addict)

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